Italian Baroque composers such as Corelli, Tartini, and Vivaldi have long been associated with the early development of the violin as a virtuoso instrument. Less well known, now, is Francesco Maria Veracini. Born in Florence in 1690, Veracini traveled throughout Europe, dazzling audiences with his violin sonatas and concertos. The English composer and music historian Charles Burney (1726-1814) described Veracini’s playing in 1745:
He led the band…in such a bold and masterly manner as I had never heard before…The peculiarities in his performance were his bow and, his shake [trill], his learned arpeggios, and a tone so loud and clear, that it could be distinctly heard through the most numerous band of a church or theatre.
Suzuki violin students will recognize this Gigue from Veracini’s Sonata No. 7 in D minor. Suzuki included it towards the end of Book 5. Here is a thrilling period performance by violinist and conductor Fabio Biondi. Notice Biondi’s spirited ornamentation:
La Folia, the ancient theme/chord progression which originated in Portuguese dance music as early as 1577, was borrowed (and stolen) by composers throughout the Baroque era. Vivaldi, Scarlatti, Handel, and Jean-Baptiste Lully were among the composers who took advantage of the theme’s endlessly rich musical possibilities. Later composers also paid homage to La Folia. It surfaces briefly at this moment in the second movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Franz Liszt included it in his La Rhapsodie espagnole. Even contemporary Welsh composer Karl Jenkins (of “diamond commercial” fame) has written his own La Folia variations for marimba and strings.
One of the most famousBaroque versions of La Folia was Arcangelo Corelli’s. In a 2013 Listeners’ Club post we explored a few contrasting performances of this music. Shinichi Suzuki’s La Folia in the opening of Suzuki Violin Book 6 is based loosely on Corelli’s piece.
Recently, I ran across another great La Folia performed by Spanish viola da gamba player Jordi Savall. No one is sure who wrote this piece. It is part of a collection of now anonymous music called Flores de Música (“Musical Flowers”), compiled by Spanish organist and composer Antonio Martín y Coll (died c. 1734). The viola da gamba is a stringed instrument which first appeared in Spain in the mid to late fifteenth century. You’ll notice a distinctly Spanish flavor in the instrumentation (castanets and the wood of the bow hitting the strings) and rhythm (1:04, for example). Listen closely to the way the guitar’s dance-like rhythm livens things up at 5:17.
At their best, theme and variations are about fun-loving virtuosity and a wide range of expression and drama. These aspects are on full display here:
Now, let’s hear Sergei Rachmaninov’s 1931 Variations on a Theme of Corelli, Op. 42. Throughout twenty ferocious variations and a coda, the La Folia theme enters bold and adventurous new territory. Following the opening statement of the theme, the music begins quickly to move far afield harmonically. There’s a spirit of the “trickster” here as we’re thrown sudden curveballs (1:08). At the same time, it’s easy to sense something ominous and slightly gloomy under the surface. At moments we get the faintest glimpse of the outlines of the Dies Irae (the Latin “Day of Wrath” chant) which shows up in so much of Rachmaninov’s music. Listen for the ghoulish low notes around the 4:44 mark. As the final, solemn chord dies away, ghosts evaporate.
This work is dedicated to the violinist Fritz Kreisler, with whom Rachmaninov performed occasionally. Rachmaninov never recorded this piece. In a letter dated December 21, 1931 he lamented:
I’ve played the Variations about fifteen times, but of these fifteen performances only one was good. The others were sloppy. I can’t play my own compositions! And it’s so boring! Not once have I played these all in continuity. I was guided by the coughing of the audience. Whenever the coughing would increase, I would skip the next variation. Whenever there was no coughing, I would play them in proper order. In one concert, I don’t remember where – some small town – the coughing was so violent that I played only ten variations (out of 20). My best record was set in New York, where I played 18 variations. However, I hope that you will play all of them, and won’t “cough”.
You won’t hear any coughing or miss any skipped variations in Hélène Grimaud’s excellent 2001 recording:
George Frideric Handel’s 1746 oratorio, Judas Maccabaeus tells the story of Hanukkah. The oratorio, set to a libretto by Thomas Morell, is a three act dramatization of the Maccabean Revolt (167-160 BC), in which a Jewish army rose up against the Seleucid Empire (present day Syria). The revolt, which ultimately led to the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem, was sparked by the actions of a lone Jewish priest, Mattathias. In defiance of the mandate to worship Zeus, Mattathias killed a fellow Jew who was about to offer pagan sacrifice and tore down the pagan alter.
It’s a drama which seems ripe for Handel’s triumphant music. But for all of Judas Maccabaeus’ religious overtones, it’s likely that Handel actually conceived the work as a clever piece of secular political propaganda. Its mythic heroism coincided with Prince William, Duke of Cumberland’s victory at the Battle of Culloden, a conflict which marked the end of the Jacobite rising of 1745.
Judas Maccabaeus moves from mournful despair (the unrelenting quiet intensity of the Chorus For Sion lamentation make at 17:46) to a stirring rallying cry (Arm, arm, ye brave 29:52), and ultimately to triumphant exultation. Listen to the way Handel’s counterpoint becomes increasingly complex and euphoric in the Chorus, Hear us, O Lord (55:56).
Shinichi Suzuki’s transcription of the theme of the Chorus, See, the conqu’ring hero comes, is included in Book 2 of the Suzuki Violin Repertoire. Chorus from Judas Maccabaeus helps students develop long, sustained bows and a feeling of relaxed, springy connection to the string. It’s also a great piece for bow division and the encouragement of the push of the elbow and upper arm, which allows the bow to reach the frog. For full bows, students should visualize the bow’s motion as an arch (following the dip of the bow stick), not as a straight line.
Here is Handel’s original version, performed by Sir Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. The jubilant chorus occurs towards the end of Judas Maccabaeus.
Beethoven wrote twelve far-reaching variations for cello and piano on Handel’s theme. Here is a 1966 performance by cellist Maurice Gendron and pianist Jean Françaix:
If you’re a Suzuki violin student, you know the charmingly quirky Gavotte from “Mignon” by the transcription in Book 2. You may be less familiar with the piece’s composer and origin.
Mignon was a wildly successful 1866 French comic opera by Ambroise Thomas (1811-1896), longtime director of the Paris Conservatory. The three-act opera is based on Goethe’s novel, Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre. Its soap opera-like plot centers around a passionate romantic rivalry between two contrasting female characters: the seductive and unscrupulous Philine and the sweet, loving Mignon (who was kidnapped by Gypsies as a child and later discovers that she is the daughter of a wealthy gentleman).
The Rondo-Gavotte, Me voici dans son boudoir, is sung in Act 2 by Frédéric, a young nobleman who is infatuated with Philine. He stands in her empty dressing room, overcome with excitement and anticipation at the prospect of seeing her. Although originally written for a lyric tenor, the aria is now also commonly sung by sopranos. Here is a performance by Marilyn Horne:
By 1919, Mignon had enjoyed 1,500 performances at the Opéra-Comique in Paris where it opened. The opera’s popularity inspired this virtuoso showpiece, Romance et Gavotte de Mignon op.16, by Spanish violinist Pablo de Sarasate. Here is a recording by Tianwa Yang. You’ll hear the familiar Gavotte melody around the 4:40 mark:
From a pedagogical perspective, Suzuki’s transcription is valuable for both bow arm and left hand violin technique. Staying mainly in the middle of the bow, the eighth notes allow the student to listen for short but “ringing” staccatos, feeling a sense of springy connection and release with the bow (toh, toh). Later, as the student becomes more advanced, the sixteenth notes can become a brushy spiccato. Eighth notes in measures 38 and 42 can lift with a feeling of the elbow pushing the bow towards the Frog. Frequent re-takes with the bow should be timed so as not to cheat the preceding quarter notes. In the four note trills in measure five, a small amount of bow should be used with quick, precise energy in the left hand.
In the middle section, finger placement of the low B-flats and Fs should be practiced slowly and carefully, maintaining relaxation and correct shape of the left hand. The B-flat major scale is helpful for intonation in this section. The student gets great practice alternating between F-sharps and Fs and Bs and B-flats in this piece.
Most importantly, Gavotte from “Mignon” is about capturing an immaculate French style. Precise (never rushing) rhythm and a feeling of flow and motion to the ends of phrases are essential to this sense of style.